Head Shrink: Win now, but plan ahead
We now are in the fantasy football postseason, which means the excitement is building, but so is the pressure. If your team still is in the running, you likely are starting to entertain thoughts of being in the championship game. Maybe you are even just one game away. So you don't want to do anything to blow it, and you're putting extra pressure on yourself. No need to fret. You've made it this far, and your team is one of the best in the league for sure. Now, it's just a question of making the most well-informed moves you can to push your team into the next round.
Issue: I'm worried about my top players being benched in weeks 16 or 17.
Outlook: Your first goal should be to make it that far, so you can't let such concerns overwhelm you. As long as you have quality depth, you won't have much to worry about. In many cases, though, some roster movement is needed now to prepare for the possible weeks ahead. If the Patriots don't gun for a perfect season or are somehow saddled with a loss, you could be looking at them benching or limiting top starters as soon as Week 16.
The Colts are close to wrapping up the second seed in the AFC and could have a first-round bye clinched by Week 16. The Steelers are closing in on the AFC North title, and the Chargers can clinch the AFC West title this week. The Jaguars can grab firm hold of the fifth AFC playoff spot this week, while the Browns also can clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Bills accompanied by losses by the Titans and the Broncos.
In the NFC, Dallas can wrap up the top seed with a win and a Green Bay loss, and the Packers can clinch a first-round bye with a win and a Seahawks loss. Seattle already has clinched the NFC West title, and Tampa Bay can win the NFC South title this week. The Giants appear locked into the fifth seed in the NFC.
Your strategy: The playoff picture will be a lot clearer next week, but prepare now, because Peyton Manning could see limited action in Week 16, and there is an outside shot Tom Brady and Tony Romo could as well; if not then, for sure by Week 17. Brett Favre and Matt Hasselbeck also are risks, much more for Week 17 than 16. How much Seattle, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and San Diego are willing to fight for third and fourth seeds remains to be seen, and if any of those four teams doesn't wrap up a first-round bye, it also might consider trimming the playing time of its top starters in the final week or two.
Sometimes, teams sit their starters early rather than battle for a No. 3 seed. The Jaguars and Giants also could be risks if they firmly lock themselves into a fifth seed early. So make sure you are working the free-agent list for viable backups. At quarterback, Tarvaris Jackson is performing adequately and is owned in only 11.1 percent of ESPN leagues. Trent Edwards (10.2 percent owned) had 34 fantasy points in his past two games. Chris Redman (2.6 percent owned) had four touchdown passes in his past two games and faces Arizona in Week 16. Todd Collins (1.6 percent owned) threw two touchdown passes in relief last Thursday and has a lot of experience absorbing the game on the sidelines, which could translate into solid play when he hits the field regularly. Yes, these are desperation options, but you could be looking at some desperate measures to replace your big-name quarterbacks. At running back, consider adding the backups of some top starters who could be benched or limited, such as Kenton Keith, Najeh Davenport and Michael Turner. Players like Maurice Morris and Reuben Droughns could see expanded roles. At wide receiver, it's better to plug in starters from other teams than to expect a usual reserve to do well against top defensive backs. Acquire or hold onto lesser but adequate wide receiver options such as Justin Gage, Nate Burleson, Kevin Walter and Sidney Rice. Just make sure your top starters from the top NFL playoff teams have solid backups as you head into Week 15.
Issue: There are some nifty free agents available right now, but I can't see fitting them into my starting lineup.
Outlook: In any regular-season week, you would add Samkon Gado or Jabar Gaffney, but you can't see them getting off your bench if you add them. Other interesting names such as Darius Walker, Chris Redman and Delanie Walker are making you think about adding them. But what's the use if you don't use them?
Your strategy: You can never overlook any players who can make possible contributions, and you should at least add them to keep them away from other teams. You don't want your opponent to add Gado and have him beat you based on another two-touchdown outing. If you add a guy like Darius Walker, whom your opponent might need to fill a hole, you can weaken his starting lineup. Get these guys so they don't possibly beat you. Injuries can happen at any time, too, so if your best running back goes down, you'll be happy to plug in a guy like Gado or Gaffney. The latter is a must-add, as he has reemerged as a prime scoring target in New England. His impending matchup against the Jets makes him worthy of a starting spot in many leagues this week.
Issue: My opponent has Tom Brady and Randy Moss facing the Jets this week. Should I start looking to next season?
Outlook: We touched some on this issue last week, when I advised you not to worry about your opponent's team. I need to reinforce this point. One or two players alone cannot beat your team, even if they don't make it easy for your team to win. Case in point: A first-round matchup in one of my personal leagues. One of the owners seemed headed for a storybook season. He started off 7-1 and managed his team diligently while being stationed in Iraq. He headed into the postseason with Brady and Moss in his lineup but suffered a one-point loss in the first round of the postseason. Despite Brady and Moss scoring 59 points, the rest of his team scored 50. He was taken out by the lowest seed to make the playoffs, a team that didn't even get any quarterback points from Vince Young in Week 14. But the rest of the underdog's lineup picked up the slack, most notably Jamal Lewis and Joseph Addai, who combined to score 59 points. The lower seed advanced, and Brady and Moss did not.
Your strategy: Congrats to my buddy Jay Krueger for showing us anything can happen in the fantasy postseason. He is a shining example of how you cannot worry about the other team if your own lineup is well balanced. He also has Braylon Edwards, Greg Jennings and Antonio Gates. This week, he faces a team with Tony Romo, Wes Welker and Marion Barber for the right to reach the championship game. I don't think he is worried at all.
Issue: Cincinnati's passing game has disappointed me recently.
Outlook: Carson Palmer caused the end of some fantasy seasons in Week 14 with an outing that generated only three fantasy points in ESPN leagues. He threw for 189 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Palmer scored only 10 fantasy points in his past two games. T.J. Houshmandzadeh has been dealing with a variety of ailments including a back problem, and his play has dropped off significantly in recent weeks. After a great first half, he scored only once in his past five games; he has not come through with a 100-yard game since Week 6. Chad Johnson registered double-digit fantasy points only once in his past seven games.
Your strategy: Don't hesitate to bench these big-name guys if you have other quality options. Sure, they had to face the Steelers and an improving, underrated Rams defense in a driving rain in Week 15, but the Bengals simply are not a dependable source of passing totals right now, and there's not enough time for a significant rebound with only three games remaining. Yes, they finish the season against the 49ers, Browns and Dolphins, which makes them more attractive starters again. But I wouldn't start Palmer over guys like Favre or Hasselbeck right now. I wouldn't start their receivers over Greg Jennings or Andre Johnson. They should not get the call over top-level players at their positions. Yet, I still would use them over less dependable guys like Lee Evans and Kevin Curtis. The Bengals' receivers still are quality options but no longer rank near the very top of their position. Palmer still is a good start but only over more erratic players, like Jon Kitna, or players who have very challenging matchups, such as David Garrard against Pittsburgh this week.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.